EFFORTS to preserve a 'picture postcard' countryside are turning rural villages into wealthy ghettos, claims a rural housing expert.
Mark Shucksmith, professor of planning at Newcastle University, said spiralling house prices in some rural communities were driving poorer people out of the countryside.
Affordable rural housing was essential to the vitality and sustainability of rural areas and was crucial for less prosperous members of rural societies to thrive, he warned.
Prof Shucksmith is director of Newcastle University's Institute for Social Renewal.
Average house prices in rural areas exceed those in urban areas of England by around 25%, and the smaller the village, the higher the price, he said.
Houses in these areas cost nearly 11 times the average household income.
"It should be no surprise to us that powerful groups prevail in designing rural policy and planning, and that less powerful groups are generally excluded from decisions," said Prof Shucksmith.
"However, what is surprising is there is also a hidden dimension where people's perceptions are shaped in such a way that they accept the status quo as natural or inevitable.
"Paradoxically, this means even those who desperately need affordable rural housing find themselves conforming to the idea that the countryside has to be protected 'for its own sake' and that it is natural and fair that it is not built upon."
The language used around the subject was often particularly emotive. Phrases such as "concreting the countryside" helped to support this belief.
There were misconceptions about how much of the countryside was actually built on, with many people believing it to be 50-75%, when in fact the true figure was more like 10%.
"Beyond the question of who is acceptable to join a rural community, there are issues of fairness and social justice," said Prof Shucksmith.
"Rural communities are often proclaimed by those who live there as inclusive and neighbourly, but it seems they often prevent the new housing which would enable poorer and middle income groups to share the rural idyll.
"People's housing opportunities are crushed and their life-chances diminished by the failure to build sufficient houses in rural Britain.
"At the same time, many richer rural residents gain substantially through enhanced property values, and their distance from poverty, crime, hunger and squalor becomes ever greater.
"This not only separates people from disadvantage but also causes it. Ultimately, our exclusive countryside is a question of values for each and every one of us."
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